2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Early Portland man's wake worked — he woke right up

Two boys, asked to watch over the deceased on a dark and windy night in the 1890s, are terrified when the 'corpse' starts making noises

The Federal Writers Project was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1930s Depression-fighting programs. The basic idea was an oral history; writers went to various places in the country and recorded on paper the stories of particularly interesting, colorful and/or elderly citizens.

Almost 100 of these were done in Oregon (here's a link to them). Subjects include life in the old Aurora colony, pioneer miners in Granite (here's a link to my article on this one), Oregon life in the 1870s and such topics.

One of the Oregon stories is provocatively titled "The Maddest Man in Town." Although it's not the kind of history story that "changes everything," it's well worth looking up.

The town in question was Portland, and the maddest man an Irishman named Donovan. The story itself is an interview by William Haight with a Portland resident named Charlie Imus, conducted in 1939 when Imus was 60 years old.

It seemed that in the 1890s, word came along that Donovan had died. Donovan's widow promptly sent for a priest to come "pray him out of Purgatory," and Charlie – who was the local undertaker's son – came along to help.

Soon the priest arrived, all the way from Vancouver and a bit put out. He set up the necessary candles at head and feet and then "prayed and sprinkled water and prayed and sprinkled water some more 'til old man Donovan was prayed and sprayed out of Purgatory."

Then it was time for the wake. Charlie and his friend Bill were delegated to watch over the corpse for the night as some of Donovan's relatives and friends wailed and grieved over him and others passed around a demijohn of something hair-raising (and probably home-made) in the other room.

Meanwhile, Bill and Charlie were in the kitchen trying to keep watch on the body. It was a wild night; the house was sided with shakes and built nearly at the crest of a hill, and the wind howled when it hit the shakes.

There was, of course, no electricity either. One imagines an old Queen Anne-style house, lit only with a flickering oil-lamp on a table between two wide-eyed boys.

"The wind a-howlin', coupled with the wail of the wakers, sort of discommoded Bill an' me," Charlie said. "Bill was plenty scairt anyhow. Donovan was the first corpse he'd ever been around. So's all that howlin' had Bill a-settin' mighty uncomfortable-like in his chair, and kept me kinda on the uneasy side."

"All of a sudden Bill and me heard the consarndest noise I've ever heard," he continued. "Bill jumped from his chair scairt-like and says, kind of quavery-like, "What's that?" Sure ‘nuff! ‘Tweren't the wind nor the wakers – the sound was a-comin' from that corpse."

Charlie immediately thought it was the cat. This would be bad. A houseful of bereaved relatives was depending on him and Bill to watch the corpse and they'd gone and let the cat in!

It wasn't the cat. Nor was it any corpse. In the middle of his wake, old man Donovan had awakened.

The wakers collected the man formerly known as "the deceased" and wrapped him in blankets to warm him up.

"Purty soon he took a pull at the demijohn hisself," Charlie recounted. "And was his wife happy! Everybody was real excited."

Donovan was excited too, until the next time he tried to go to mass.

"The priest, bein' mighty set in his ways, wouldn't let Donovan nor his family go to church no more," Charlie said. "He figgered Donovan had pulled the trick of playin' possum on him.

"And even if he hadn't, it looked like God thought the old cuss was such a sinner that he had to be sent back to Earth. Anyway, the priest said he'd prayed old Donovan out of Purgatory and now he was beyond the jurisdiction of the church."

Donovan lived for another 17 years before a speeding freight train ended his life. The whole time, Charlie said, he never stopped being mad at that priest.

The complete story is available on the Internet; it, and others like it, are well worth reading. It’s at http://memory.loc.gov/wpaintro/orcat.html (or just do a Google search for “WPA life history Oregon” and it will pop right up).

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